Susan Makov was hiking the Uintas in 2015 when the surrounding stands of lodgepole pine suddenly mesmerized her, a moment that eventually would translate into the work she is creating today. “The trees were distressed and I became obsessed with it,” she says as we pull into the downtown library’s underground parking, in preparation for seeing Field Notes, her exhibition up through the end of February.
Four of her paintings startle in their boldness and seemingly stark simplicity as we emerge from the elevator onto the fourth floor: the impact is visceral and provides something of the same overwhelming impression the artist must have had on encountering these behemoth trees in the wilderness.
Up close, on the right, just past the librarian’s desk, what appear to be hundreds of twigs and slender branches sprout from the rich bark of two trees’ contrasting trunks, going in all directions (“The Lodgepole Pines In My Forest of Dreams,” 36” x 36”, 2018, oil on canvas), while another lusty, bronze and leafy tree on the far left has tall and skinny imitators swaying away into the forest. Titled “Shadow Factory,” it is painted loosely, more so than all but one other work here — the last two pieces Makov completed, she tells me. Hanging inside the gallery is “Dancing In the Twilight Green,” the other painterly piece that exudes more a sense of mystery and depth than diligent attention to detail. It’s a nice switch from other works in the exhibition and, given the looser, more confident, brushstrokes, is likely the best piece in it. It’s not, however, the largest or most pleasing. That may be “The Tree That Hums Like Bees,” which took Makov five months to finish and comes complete with crazy multidirectional branches and a nuthatch, the only bird in the show and a charming fellow it is, too. This tree was found in Liberty Park in the fall after the leaves had gone, says the artist. “Somebody’s wallet was at the base of it,” Makov recollects. “There was something kind of touching about that.”
Also inside the library gallery are four canyon pieces, with “Gumdrops for Breakfast,” being a personal favorite. It’s painted, along with its companions, in bright, saturated, “exaggerated colors of what’s normally there,” the artist explains. It is a little bit Fauvist leaning and, though not as committed to those hues as “It’s Not Easy Being Blue,” that introduces this wall of works, still extremely fanciful in its depiction of a famed area of the Southwest. There are colors even in the shadows, while storm clouds brew over some seven or eight layers of rock beginning at the base of the mountainous ravine. It hangs next to “Twizzlers and Butterscotch,” of Capitol Reef Drive: the usually staid Makov explains that her good friend, Salt Lake City artist Judith Wolbach, told her to have fun with the titles for this show – and so she did.
Hanging across from Makov’s works, in one of the best pairings of exhibitions ever at the Library, are conceptual works created from natural elements by Lisa Anderson, from a couple of large wall hangings to intimate pieces made from leaves and pinecones and mulberry fiber. The two shows work together enchantingly. Makov says she and Anderson met during the summer and hit it off, but didn’t see each other again until the opening.
As we drive from the library to her nearby home, Makov explains that she paints entirely in oil following a few unhappy experiments in acrylic. She doesn’t like the resulting colors or the texture and is waiting for an air cleaner she ordered from a family she trusts in Illinois to arrive to begin working in oil again. In fact, she says with a smile, she has a piece she started in acrylic she can’t wait to paint over.
Makov has a lot of her own art hanging in her fascinating house, including bulto — traditionally carved figures of saints. Makov decided to make her own “nonreligious/maybe religious figures — ‘The Lady of the Birds,’ ‘Our Lady of the Ladders,’” and others. All are women. The walls and ledges of her home also hold pictures of her parents and their artwork, a Huichol Indian yarn painting, former Utahn Gaylen Hansen’s paintings (now 100, he resides in Seattle where she goes to visit him), a work by Wolbach, a cat hand puppet from Germany.
She demonstrates her process for the tree works: “I photograph a lot of trees and then I look at them and most of the time I build my own forest online,” she explains. “I play around in Photoshop with it and make a large transparency and project it (because I like starting with what I know) and just kind of change it as I need to. I don’t follow it totally; you can see it’s all drippy and stuff, but that’s basically how I begin.”
While her first show of paintings and woodcuts at A Gallery in 2016 (that we review here) also focused on trees, it took something of an ecological doomsday approach that lacked, to a large extent, the sense of romance, even of love, that the new exhibition exudes about the trees it depicts. (It had four birds to the library show’s one, for example, but they were all dead.)
Makov may not quite have known the reason for her current fervor, but in one of those twists of synchronicity, the book that so many mentioned to her upon seeing the new show, The Overstory by Richard Powers, hit the best-seller lists just as Makov was working away here in her home studio.
Intrigued on reading reviews about it, she bought a copy and was inspired again. Powers’ book served as a valuable verification that she was on the right track, she says — of something she really had known she had right all along. A few people, even a favorite former teacher, had discouraged Makov from following the path she was on in painting her highly detailed forests, she adds, but once Powers’ book came out were suddenly enthusiastic about her pursuit. And after reading it she felt validated in spirit and practice.
Makov will follow this exceptional exhibition with new paintings of trees in the fall at Finch Lane.
Over the years, she also has worked in printmaking, photography and sculpture, and her work is in the collections of The National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, D.C.; The Southwest Museum, Los Angeles; Harris Collection of American Poetry, John Hay Library, Brown University; Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale; Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard; and most Utah institutions of higher learning, among many others.
The artist and educator, who taught printmaking, illustration, 2D design and book arts at Weber State University from 1977 until her retirement in 2015, is an East Coast émigré. She was born in Hicksville, New York, in 1952 to artist parents who worked together designing windows for Lord & Taylor and other high-end stores that had window displays. “I think dad did more of the designing of the entire windows and my mom did background painting,” she says. Their vacations were spent painting in Provincetown, Massachusetts. “My mom painted portraits, still lifes, and landscapes. When I was younger, 12, I would sit there, her model. But I got to learn about oil painting that way. I drew from age 3, but started painting in junior high and I was good at it,” says Makov.
She continued art studies through high school, went on to Syracuse University in New York; Brighton Polytechnic in the UK for a year; and State University of New York at Buffalo for graduate school.
Then she went to California to pursue one of four job openings in printmaking in the United States at that time. It was a recession and she took the train from Buffalo, during the blizzard of 1977, to Los Angeles, where at the hotel where she was to interview, Weber State University had just posted a job for $12,000 a year.
Married at the time to a fellow teacher, who was shocked that she got a job when he didn’t, she moved first to Utah (he followed) and got an apartment with no furniture, “where my only chair was the toilet seat,” she says, and began work. First semester she was asked to teach a graphics design class “because the administration assumed that printmaking was graphics” and graphic design somehow equated with that. “I knew nothing. Thank goodness there was a guy from the Standard [Examiner] in Ogden who worked in layout. We got together every week so I could learn what I needed to research, but I really sucked.” And when the photography professor died, everyone in the department turned to her. She took a workshop in Colorado and learned the basics of color. Later, she studied large format, intro, history of photography. It went on like that, she learned on the fly and she survived, though her marriage did not.
Like her paintings of trees, it isn’t until you get close to Makov that her own depth and spirit become apparent. Typically she is quiet and soft-spoken, until a topic that she is keen on arises: dreams and their meaning, cats, backyard birds, and Southwestern Native American art being among them. Then she’s animated.
Makov has been in a dream workshop with some of Salt Lake City’s movers and shakers (as they would be termed if we were to name them) for several years and has gained great insight there, especially within the Jungian framework she favors.
The only cat in her home just now is the winsome ginger, Atticus, named for the compassionate lawyer in Harper Lee’s Pulitzer-winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Though 18, Atticus will greet you nicely and, if he takes to you, later will escort you to the door. He is just one of the many cats that has graced Makov’s life during the years.
There is a marvelous tree-filled backyard behind the hundred-something-year-old home in the Ninth and Ninth district of Salt Lake City that attracts numerous bird varieties. (Makov can name them – likely in Latin — and cares for most of their needs, making Atticus necessarily a screened-in cat). Living nearby are other artists such as Phillips Gallery imagist painter and Makov’s great friend Bonnie Sucec, Modern West painter John Vehar, and its mixed-media artist Jody Plant. Makov, herself, is with “A” Gallery, so it’s a multicultural neighborhood, so to speak.
Makov published the long-needed but now out of print Trading Post Guidebook: Where to Find the Trading Posts, Galleries, Auctions, Artists and Museums of the Four Corners Region, from Northland Publishing, Flagstaff, Arizona, 1994/1995. It was researched and co-written with her partner and collaborator of more than 25 years, Salt Lake City “cat” artist, popular high school art teacher and inveterate letter writer Patrick Eddington, who died suddenly at age 63 in the spring of 2016 (see our In Memoriam here). They spent five years on the back roads of the Southwest visiting obscure trading posts to create the book and Makov developed expertise in the areas of Navajo pottery, and baskets, among other areas of Southwestern American Indian art. Together, too, they put out the limited-edition prints of Green Cat Press (www.Greencatpress.com) — Eddington would send handwritten letters to his base of famous artists and authors around the world (such as writer Ray Bradbury or poet Billy Collins) requesting a poem on a subject like cats or dogs; Makov, typically, would do an illustration, design and create the printing plates, print the edition, and both famous writer and artists would sign it. Makov now handles art print requests herself and the printing press resides at Weber State University.
At these reminiscences, rather melancholy ones, it seems that our interview comes to a logical conclusion. “I think you know my life now, the parts that you can publish,” Makov says with a gracious smile as she and Atticus show me to the door.
She pauses to relate that one of her high school art teachers, a woman with whom she remains in touch, worked for Saul Bass and Milton Glaser, “who were both the premiere graphic design people in New York, if not the world, at that time. She really wanted me to try working in the city. I told her recently that I was still thinking about coming back East. And she said, ‘No, I think you made your decision.’”
A graduate of the University of Utah, Ann Poore is a freelance writer and editor who spent most of her career at The Salt Lake Tribune. She was the 2018 recipient of the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Artist Award in the Literary Arts.